PH takes strides toward transparency

By Filane Mikee Cervantes and Ruth Abbey Gita-Carlos

January 18, 2024, 9:53 am

MANILA – In a move to bolster transparency and accountability in government, over a dozen bills have been filed in the 19th Congress to create an enabling law on access to information.

The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill aims to provide citizens with unimpeded access to official government records, documents, and research data--in short, a full public disclosure of government transactions.

This measure would be a crucial step in implementing the constitutional right of the people to information on matters of public concerns.

Some of the pending House bills have adopted the draft made by the Presidential Communications Office (PCO) through the Freedom of Information-Program Management Office (FOI-PMO).

In the Senate, at least four bills on FOI have been filed by Senators Grace Poe, Joel Villanueva, Sonny Angara and Bong Revilla.

Senator Robinhood Padilla, chair of the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media, has said he is ready to push for the passage of the FOI bill to fight fake news and disinformation.

On July 10, 2023, the PCO attended the first Senate public hearing on four FOI bills.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. has already reaffirmed the Philippines’ commitment to champion the right to information that is paving the way for transparency, accountability, and empowered citizenship.

"As a nation with a robust democracy, we reaffirm our commitment to champion this basic human right. It remains indelibly etched in our fundamental law,” President Marcos said during the International Conference of Information Commissioners (ICIC) in June 2023. “We value its potency to empower our people to make informed decisions to participate fully in our democratic processes, and hold their representatives accountable without fear or apprehension.”

The President also called on all the branches of government to uphold the people’s FOI as he promised to advance the campaign against misinformation and disinformation in the country.

“I reiterate our call not only to the Executive Branch, but to all branches of government, to genuinely uphold and give effect to the people’s freedom of information in the course of our day-to-day operations, with good faith and with openness," Marcos said.

Legislated FOI

Quezon City Fifth District Rep. Patrick Michael Vargas, author of House Bill 1638, argued that the FOI must be institutionalized and legislated because a mere Executive Order (EO) can easily be reversed by the next administration.

Vargas said the EO does not cover other government institutions like the local governments, the legislature, independent constitutional bodies, and the judiciary.

Parañaque City Second District Rep. Gus Tambunting, who authored House Bill 5022, said allowing public access to government-held information would be necessary in the exercise of the people's right to effective and reasonable public participation at all levels of decision-making.

Tambunting said it was high time for the FOI bill to be enacted into law to intensify the government' fight against corruption.

"Enabling the people to exercise their right to information will assure a vigilant public against unscrupulous government officials from committing atrocity against the integrity of our nation," Tambunting said.

Under the bill, government agencies shall respond to FOI requests as soon as practicable, and in any case within three working days for simple requests, seven working days for complex requests, and 20 working days for highly-technical requests.

The government agency shall determine and classify its disclosable information or records that may fall under simple requests, complex requests or highly technical requests.

All government agencies shall proactively disclose within their respective office premises and on their website the following: their mandate and functions; vision, mission, and core values; powers and duties of officials with their position and office contact information; statistical data of its accomplishments; the budget allocation and reports on disbursement made; annual procurement plan; and subsidy programs, among others.

Response to call for transparency

At present, the PCO implements the FOI Program mandated under Executive Order No. 2 issued by former President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016.

The EO No. 2 implementation led to the launching of an electronic platform to make public data and information accessible to everyone “so long as it does not compromise privacy or national security.”

The FOI-PMO, being the lead implementing office of the FOI Program, has developed the electronic Freedom of Information (eFOI) Portal, in response to the rise of technology and the need to provide Filipinos with efficient access to information mechanisms.

The eFOI portal is designed to assist government offices in receiving, processing, and responding to online requests to ensure the effective management of the influx of requests.

As of Jan. 17, 2024 the public may request official information from a total of 592 participating government agencies

Campaign vs. disinformation

To combat disinformation and “fake news”, the government on August 14, 2023 launched a Media and Information Literacy (MIL) campaign.

No less than President Marcos witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on MIL campaign between government officials and representatives of major social media platforms.

In his speech, President Marcos urged the Filipinos to always fight for and seek the truth, saying the MIL program is about fighting for the truth.

"It's time that we give our kids, not only our kids but our citizenry, the tools for them to be able to tell what is important, what is not, what is relevant, where the sources of this information come from," Marcos said.

Under the agreement, the PCO shall engage and involve the public and media in enriching the quality of public discourse in matters of governance, and to craft, formulate, develop, enhance and coordinate the messaging system of the Executive Branch and the Office of the President.

The Marcos administration has also emphasized the government’s commitment to protect the rights and welfare of Philippine press as it continued the operations of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security (PTFOMs) formed by former President Duterte.

The PTFoMS was created under Administrative Order No. 01 series of 2016 to lead in the efficient, coherent, and comprehensive resolution of cases of violence against media workers

The PTFoMs is composed of various government agencies, including the National Prosecution Service (NPS), the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), and the Philippine National Police (PNP) collaborating to resolve and monitor cases of violence against media workers.

In July last year, the PTFoMS and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) forged a partnership to increase the protection of members of the Philippine media.

In a statement, the PTFoMS said the joint effort will enable the country to have a reliable database on violations of media rights, as well as to identify long-standing cases that need to be attended to in the interest of justice. (with a report from Wilnard Bacelonia/PNA)